drugwar

In his first interview as the director of the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy—otherwise known as the drug czar—Gil Kerlikowske told the WALL STREET JOURNAL that the Obama administration will put an end to the long, failed “war on drugs.” He said:

“Regardless of how you try to explain to people it’s a ‘war on drugs’ or a ‘war on a product,’ people see a war as a war on them,” he said. “We’re not at war with people in this country.”

[snip]

The Obama administration is likely to deal with drugs as a matter of public health rather than criminal justice alone, with treatment's role growing relative to incarceration, Mr. Kerlikowske said.

Outstanding… The WSJ goes on to detail Kerlikowske’s record as Seattle’s police chief, where he seems to have informally scaled back drug warring in favor of treatment-based responses to drug use.

One big problem though: The article repeatedly notes Kerlikowske’s support for repealing the existing ban on federal funding for needle exchange programs—which have been overwhelmingly proven to both massively reduce the spread of HIV and to move people into drug recovery programs. During the campaign, Obama himself repeatedly said he’d lift the ban—which the White House has had the power to do since the Clinton administration.

Problem is, Obama’s 2010 budget proposal explicitly retains the ban! Once again, this administration is doing better in word than in deed. Here’s what a White House spokesperson told Cynthia Gordy of ESSENCE:

“President Obama decided not to play politics as usual with this budget,” LaBolt told me. “While he remains committed to supporting the program, he wants to address it through the normal legislative process. The administration wants to work with Congress and the public to build support for this change.”

Whatever. To translate: We like it, but won’t fight for it. What else is new? The health department already has authority to repeal the ban, if it can show doing so would not worsen drug use. Former HHS Secretary Donna Shalala documented that now obvious fact way back in the Clinton era—but Clinton’s political team overruled her. Obama’s politics are a lot more usual than he’d like us to believe. Let’s hope Kerlikowske at least puts some bite into his barking in the Journal.

—KAI WRIGHT